Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Excerpt from The Length of a Love Song

Joyce A. O. Lee


On the Saturday morning before Christmas, Karen chose to remain snuggled warmly in her bed listening quietly to the wail of the wind, and reflecting dreamily on her life. Outside her bedroom windows, dangling from the branch of a tree, she could hear the windchimes pealing in a frenzied symphony, wildly announcing the arrival of winter.

Many years before, her father had planted small pines like a brigade around her house. By now, they had grown tall and leggy, and their restless whispers became louder and louder with the seasonal winds illogically transforming them into whimsical instruments that whistled a chant from Nature's unpredictable refrain.

This was a day of solstice, a time of ancient celebrations and rites. It was a time of year when daylight stood defenseless against the dark and lengthy nights. It was a time of firelighting and feasting for all.

Climbing from her bed, Karen stepped to the window to look outside expectantly where a winter sky now hovered near in an uninviting gray. Over the past week, the weather had grown quite cold and wet, and a dusting of snow was in the forecast.

With all of her shopping completed, today she was free at last to spend this quiet Saturday before Christmas lodged cozily in her small house, wrapping gifts, baking holiday treats, and finishing with her decorations.

From years gone by, repeated traditions that she had established when her daughters were children kept her hanging their school Christmas projects on her tree. Miniature Santas with elves, and angels and snowmen, had been cut and pasted on colored construction paper, and artistically decorated with white balls of cotton and sprinkles of glitter. All had been thoughtfully made by a child's small but creative hand.

Appreciated and loved, each heartfelt endeavor had been carefully hung by their mother to adorn an ideal branch on the selected spruce that she had purchased and placed so prominently in the front window of her home.

Colorful trinkets and ornamental glass balls, some new and others quite old, were hung among the blinking lights, and tinsel, and garlands on any chosen limb. With the many gift-wrapped packages on the floor at its base, anyone could see that Christmastime was nearing.

Several times a day, Shannon had phoned her, but he'd not made an appearance in a week. In his business, December was such an important month of holiday partying, and he had placed himself in charge of all the arrangements.

With a thumbnail description, he'd tried to prepare her for the busiest month of the year, and his often impossible schedule. But even with this intense introduction to the heart of his profession, she had no idea how tasked he'd actually be.

With his loyalties divided, Shannon longed for more time to spend with her, and he plied her with all sorts of solemn reasons why she should come to Messenger's on this night, and sit where she could watch the merriment and party activities. Wanting to see him and please him as well, Karen surprised him by taking a cab across town to the restaurant.

Gladdened to see her standing near the entrance, he hastily guided her through the dividing crowd to their table for two, where he could easily see her and her smile, and walk close by, brushing her hair.

Much later, he came to her there, and led her across the floor, where they danced slowly, tenderly holding one another, while Shannon sang his romantic love songs in her ear. Only for her, he would quietly sing, and she was filled with adoration for this handsome man who'd entered so unexpectedly into her solitary life. At a time when she was looking the least for someone.

From behind the bar, Rory stood polishing his glassware and watching while the couple on the dance floor swayed slowly to the music. The first time she walked through their doors, he had been the one to see her and her gentle blue eyes.

He'd thought her real attractive and not a painted doll, but the kind of woman that his friend, Shannon Messenger, could truly love. With a keen Irish eye, Rory could see that his boss looked like a man with a light turned on in his life. And he'd fallen in love with a voice on the phone.

The following morning, Shannon phoned early. "Karen, I have something I want to show you!" He sounded as excited as a small boy with a remarkable surprise, and his enthusiasm was contagious. "Can you go for breakfast now?"

With her voice still soft with sleep, she answered, "Yes, of course." She wasn't dressed, but that wouldn't take her long.

"Great!" he replied. "I'll be there shortly." In thirty minutes, he was ringing her front doorbell.

In the car, during a hurried drive back to Messenger's, she searched the laughing expression on his face for some clue to the purpose of his mystery game. He'd turn and smile at her with a mischievous gleam in his eye. He said little, so she watchfully followed his course, and silently waited to see.

Shannon parked his car at the restaurant entrance, then led her through the front door and across the empty dining room. Two robust young men were energetically engaged in cleaning and vacuuming, and paid them no attention.

Moving on, they entered the busy kitchen where the chefs in perched white hats were preparing the specialties of the evening. As she was directed toward the back exit, they turned to smile at her. She smiled as well, then followed Shannon without question through the open door.

Much to her surprise, a well-traveled footpath lay handily alongside the rock wall banking the lake. Karen couldn't picture him at all in the early mornings walking this way to work, but she was wrong. Often Shannon meandered along the path in solitude, skipping rocks over the water's surface and enjoying a brief outdoor moment.

He turned her way, gripping her lapels and pulling her warm coat closer. "You'll probably think I'm kind of crazy bringing you out here on such a cold morning." His breath burst in puffs of misty white as he expressed an explanation to her. "But I've always wanted to share this with someone, and it just doesn't seem to happen that often."

Anxious to know and see, but not wanting to spoil his surprise, Karen only wondered what it could be while she followed him unquestioning along the footpath.

Together, they walked the path through the wintry landscape of barren trees, and cedars, and great tall standing hemlocks, around the lake's edge to a covered bridge. Crossing over, he stopped her in the middle and leaned over the rail, looking down and pointing into the cascading water that emptied with a swell into the lake.

"Look, Karen!" he directed her. "Can you see the ice cave?"

Below them, beneath the bridge, the frozen waters had joined, creating a thin transparent layer of ice, fragile and hovering above the falls. In some exceptional way, a clear sheet of ice had formed a linking of the land beneath the bridge, and the sound of falling water echoed in a strange caroling way from the chamber of the crystal cave.

Amazed by the sight of the delicate structure, Karen clapped her hands to her rose-tinged cheeks. "Oh, Shannon, how beautiful. Does it always freeze like this? I've never seen anything like it."

Pleased with himself and her charming reaction, he explained, "It has to get just so cold for it to freeze this way and still allow the water to flow beneath. Some winters it happens, and others it doesn't. There's no way of knowing. I simply watch for it."

Shaking her head in disbelief, she asked, "And how long have you been watching for it?" She could only guess.

"Since I was a boy," he whispered and held her close, while their frosty breath mingled with the water's misty spray. "I just knew you'd love it too."

Standing before her, he studied her face, and like the gatekeeper to some lingering transcendent moment, he slowly kissed her and allowed her passage through.

Breathlessly catching his mood, Karen sighed deeply and looked around at the barren trees and woolen sky. "I didn't know there was a path around the lake. Misha would love this."

"Next time, we'll bring him along," Shannon announced. "So he can run the squirrels and get some real outdoor exercise."

"Yes, and he'll come back smelling like a dog, and have burrs sticking to his coat."

"Well, I think he's too big to be a sweet-smelling house pet," said Shannon, in defense of Misha. "He's too much of a man, and he's in need of a girlfriend."

Karen laughed at him. "Obviously, you've never tried to give a big dog a bubble bath in a tub."

"Nope, I throw 'em in the lake." At this, they both laughed, and he kissed her cold cherry nose. "Are you good and hungry by now?"

"Oh, yes," she exclaimed. "I'm starved."

"Well, come on then, I'll beat you to the house. I'm sure Bridget can whip us up an omelette or something."

Walking swiftly, Karen followed his lead up the path through the trees where the big house lodged on the lakeside. When they entered the foyer, immediately she recognized the musty scent of old leather, and furniture polish, and Irish breads baking in the kitchen. He was so clever and had planned it all along.

For Christmas, his grand house was decorated with all natural gleanings from the land. Wreaths of greenery, fir boughs, and lengths of English Ivy from the out-of-doors, hung over the windows and entrance to every room.

Straight ahead was a crackling fire, and garmenting the mantle was a swag of dark pine arranged with merry red berries, and clusters of white mistletoe. A number of large knit stockings were hung in place in preparation for a stuffing of goodies and small trinkets. In front of the warm fire, a table for two had been set for them.

Through another doorway, in the center of the room, stood an enormous tree decorated with bubble lights, crystal balls, colorful ornaments, candy canes, gingerbread men, and strings of cranberries and popcorn. Beneath the tree, there were gaily wrapped presents arranged on the floor in stacks and piles, like a pyramid of children's building blocks, and surrounding it all was an amazing collection of old fashioned toys.

There were mechanical wind-up toys, and wooden trains and trucks, and Teddy Bears, and lovely porcelain dolls with painted faces, and others of rag and ruin made by a loving hand. It was perfectly clear that preparations were in progress for a Christmas of great expectations.

Cheerfully, Shannon explained, "I have several young nieces and nephews, it's all for them. They do love the toys from the attic."

Wide-eyed and marveling at the sight, Karen replied, "How wonderful for them."

In an antique sled, on a red plaid coverlet, she spotted a pair of worn, black leather, ice skates. "Are they yours?" she asked.

"They're mine," Shannon confessed. "I keep them around as a reminder not to get too full of myself. They can bring you down fast and hard." Comically, he rubbed his backside.

"Poor thing," she laughed amused. "I used to be pretty good on skates, but that was many years ago. I haven't been skating in such a long time. I used to take my girls, and now that they're grown, well, I don't go alone."

With a raised eyebrow, he looked at her skeptically. Squeezing her hand, he suggested, "Maybe we can go sometime, and you can show me your skills."

When they came to the table set before the fire, a friendly Bridget was already standing there with creamy hot coffee. Shannon introduced the young Irish woman, the wife of his best friend. Earlier, he'd explained how Rory had sponsored her trip, and when she arrived in America, he had fallen in love with her.

Enchanted by her quaint Irish accent and her wonderful warm breads, Shannon as well, fell under her spell, and immediately found a privileged place for her in his home. She brought to them the nurtured talents from a distant Irish village.

In front of the cozy fire, they ate an omelette breakfast, with fresh fruit and warm fluffy scones. But too soon, their brief stolen morning was over. When the ancient Grandfather's clock in the foyer tolled the hour, they were cued. It was time for him to drive her back home.

However, their Christmas was planned together. She would spend Christmas Eve with his family here, and he would spend the next day getting acquainted with hers. Karen was anxious about both occasions, but Shannon seemed to take it in stride.

"In-laws are part of the penalty," he chortled.

It was only after he had driven her back home that it suddenly occurred to her what he'd said.



Joyce A. O. Lee lives in Franklin, Tennessee. She is a full time writer of fiction and poetry, and The Length of a Love Song is her first published novel.

© Joyce A. O. Lee

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012